In the past, the “unruly” kids causing disruptions in class might have been sent to a time-out. Perhaps at a “naughty table,” a separate place where they were left to ruminate about their poor choices and invited to rejoin the class only when calm.
Not surprisingly, many teachers found out this strategy didn’t work very well. Often, the unruliness was due to something more than a distaste for algebra—it was spurred by something going on outside of class, something that wouldn’t be squelched by punishment. Too often, children were witnessing domestic violence at home or were direct victims.
And if a child is witnessing violence between their parents at night, is one surprised their full concentration isn’t on world history during the day?
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In Phoenix, Ariz., staff at Phoenix Children’s Hospital are working to address this through something called the Mindful Me Program, sponsored by Kohl’s Cares, the philanthropic branch of the retail chain.
“An employee here, Marcia Stanton, MSW, has been working on raising awareness on ACEs for about the last 15 years,” says Allison Gilbert, Healthy Kids and Family Specialist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital. ACEs stand for Adverse Childhood Experiences, of which there are thought to be 10 children may experience and, in conjunction, can cause lifelong negative effects, like chronic health issues and mental health disorders.
“We see higher rates of depression, self-medication and anxiety along with trauma. It’s kind of a natural fit for [the hospital] to address these kinds of things,” explains Gilbert.
Giving Kids Coping Strategies
Three years ago, Mindful Me began in a select few Phoenix schools, among them, Holiday Park Elementary where Principal Rebecca Leimkuehler told a local news station she would get calls daily about kids acting out, and her staff turnover rate was 50 percent.
“Sometimes, classrooms where there were children not able to focus on learning and perhaps running out of the classroom, or tearing up the classroom, even being frozen and not learning, Leimkuehler told Fox10.
Instead of separating disruptive kids, classes began implementing daily mindful activities like yoga and gardening, strategies not only meant to focus kids, but to also help lessen the stress of frustrated teachers and staff.
“One of the things that we’ve found is that mindfulness and yoga can be really structured ways of implementing healthy coping strategies,” says Gilbert. “It’s a way for teachers can connect with students, and also get their class regulated.”
And by regulated, of course, Gilbert means calmed down. Focused. Mindful of the work ahead and able to leave behind, if only for a while, the stressors they face at home.
“It’s definitely something we help teachers envision using every single day, at times when they feel the classroom vibe getting out of control. It’s not just a program, but a practice.”
Parents Invited, Too
Gilbert works with one other staffer at the Hospital to train local teachers and school staff from grades kindergarten through high school how to implement Mindful Me. Right now, it’s limited to just the Phoenix area—Gilbert says they don’t have the resources to travel much further—but curriculum exists online to help teachers elsewhere learn the strategies of the program.
Strategies like school gardens, a different approach to distracted students. In the last two years, Mindful Me has helped put in three school gardens in elementary schools where students, say Gilbert, get to watch their hard work literally grow.
“There’s a lot of great things about school gardens,” says Gilbert. “It’s something for kids to be proud of.” Gardens can be healing places, and Gilbert says it’s another way to connect students and teachers non-academically. More mindfully, if you will.
On the other hand, there’s also a lot of academic benefits to planning a patch of carrots or marigolds by the playground—measuring growth cycles, studying photosynthesis, learning about the importance of bees, or, says Gilbert, “just sitting outside next to the garden and writing and reading.”
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Parents, too, are invited to participate in these healing endeavors. Beyond the classroom, Mindful Me also offers parenting classes using the positive parenting program, curriculum developed in Australia aimed at preventing behavioral, emotional and developmental problems in kids.
“What we’re trying to do is create a foundation where families can learn a little bit more about child development, communities can build on that and we can build resilience [in kids]. That means teaching good coping skills and strengthening positive relationships,” says Gilbert. “A lot of families have these struggles.”
For more expert advice about teaching kids about recognizing and healing from domestic violence, check out our Children and Teens section.
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